Mega Piranha

Piranhas are found in a handful of rivers  in South America. They are usually slightly bigger than a man’s hand, and are widely feared for their ability to eat a 400 pound animal down to the bone in minutes (they occasionally eat the bones as well). Now, what would happen if they started to grow to hundreds of times their normal size? That’s right. They would choke the river with their bodies and die of asphyxiation, and the worst part of it would be the cleanup. Problem is, that doesn’t make for much of a movie, which is why, when he saw a script with the title Mega Piranha, any director with half a brain would have run the other way. Apparently, Eric Forsberg wasn’t that smart.

This movie has the same basic strategy as the Megalodon films; take something people are scared of and make it even bigger. Except that, unlike sharks, piranhas are feared for their tendency to attack in groups, each one taking many little bites. You might as well make a movie about giant germs. This might be the worst movie I have ever seen, but it’s so much fun to make fun of; an excellent candidate for Deathstalkering. So prep your air tank and leave the cap off your de-skeletonizer ointment as we tear into the bloated, drifting carcass that is Mega Piranha!

It starts the way all monster movies start, with a couple picnicking next to the Orinoco river. They go for a swim and get eaten. So far so good. But then, with no break, Forsberg shows us a boat going down the same river. On board is an American ambassador and some other bigwigs. The piranhas actually attack the boat, sinking it. Mind you, we’re less than five minutes into the movie. We then meet Jason Fitch (Paul Logan), some special forces-type guy (that’s all the explanation we get) who is dispatched by the U.S. Secretary of State to investigate the ambassador’s disappearance. Logan has the body for playing a special forces guy, but we’re going to spend most of the movie wondering who taught him to act. It’s as if he watched 30 seconds of a John Wayne movie and tries to recreate it over and over. He doesn’t say his lines so much as bark them out, and every single line is awkward. He makes Gerard Butler’s performance in 300  look subtle and understated. To his credit, though, he does manage to keep a straight face when he delivers the line “It wasn’t terrorists. It was giant piranha.” Fitch has to sneak out of the Venezuelan base where he is staying in order to do his job without a corrupt colonel interfering. He walks around half-bent over in order to show us that he is sneaking, and that he is a sneaky special forces guy. To further emphasize his sneakiness, Forsberg fills this scene with totally random (and pointless) camera wipes from all directions. These wipes cause the guards to go blind right before Fitch walks by. You can actually see guards start to look at him and then quickly turn their heads away.

Following this death-defying escape, Fitch meets Sarah Monroe, a scientist (former pop princess Tiffany, trying desperately to slow the aging process. You can almost hear her thinking “Oh, and I used to sing to sold-out shows. Sob …”). She tells him that the boat was sunk by piranhas, who are getting bigger by the day because they were injected with a serum called O-Hucares, and they will keep growing exponentially until they are (I’m not kidding) the size of a whale. So Fitch teams up with Monroe and her team of nerdy scientists to fight the potentially world-destroying phenomenon of giant piranha.

The abomination that is the special effects in this movie deserves a section all its own. Also ala Meg, Forsberg relies completely on CGI for the visuals. No miniatures, no

Oh, yes they did.

animatronics, just cheesy, pixelated images, clumsily bolted over the footage. I don’t hold that a film has to have seamless special effects to be worthwhile, but that shouldn’t be an excuse not to try. And even with a limited budget, a resourceful filmmaker can make decent effects. James Cameron and his crew built only six Alien models for Aliens, but with some creative camera work, they made us believe there were hundreds of them. Similarly, our first ever glimpse of a face-hugger in Alien is simply Ridley Scott’s hands in a pair of gloves. CGI has become an excuse for a lot of wanna-be directors to be lazy. Were model piranhas so hard to come by? Would it have been so hard to use a few five-dollar air hoses to generate the thrashing in the water? Was it so prohibitive to rent one helicopter, instead of the computer-generated blob that we see, then use a split-screen to reproduce it?

Then there’s the editing. Countless times, we see the same footage used over again. At one point, when Fitch’s phone battery dies, Monroe tells him to suck on the battery. We actually watch him do this for close to two minutes.

The stupidities just keep piling up. Once the piranha problem is known, the Venezuelan government actually tries to eradicate the plague by firing lots of missiles into the river. (And you thought W was trigger-happy.) Later, Venezuelan soldiers interrogate a prisoner by smacking him with a phone book. Toward the end, the piranha seem to have not only grown to enormous size, but developed a death wish, as we see them leaping out of the water, and crashing into buildings, resulting in huge explosions! One fish actually impales itself on a light house!

The one thing you can sort-of feel good about in this movie is that nothing was wasted. No good actors poured their talents into a hopeless script. No quality special effects were wasted on a stupid concept. All the components of this movie deserve each other.

There are a couple of lessons we should take away from this. One is that, as we saw in Meg, bigger does not mean scarier. Many things, piranhas included, are scary for their speed, their efficiency, and above all, their invisibility. When they grow to such size that they have to leap out of the water to do anything, and then they explode, it’s stupid, not scary. The other is that incredibly lame monster movies were not limited to the days of the Blacklist. The only thing Mega Piranha has that, say, Invasion of the Saucer-Men didn’t is bad CGI. Hollywood has always spat out tripe, regardless of the political landscape.

As much as I complain about this movie, I have to admit, we had a great time making fun of it. It’s perfect for lampooning. It’s stupid, it’s over the top, there are countless opportunities to insert lines or jokes, and these opportunities are extended by bad editing. And of course, just when you think it can’t possibly ask you to swallow anything more ridiculous than what it already has, it does. From Fitch ninja-kicking a school of piranha back into the river (I’m not kidding) to a school of piranha actually eating an entire destroyer (I’m still not kidding), this is one of those movies you have to see to believe. The one thing that is kind of impressive is how actors say things like “Florida is being attacked by giant fish!” without cracking up. I wonder how many takes they had to do.

I wanted to include one real mega-piranha, since it’s more interesting than the movie.

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Time Machine

60s poster 2In 1894, H.G. Wells published his novel The Time Machine, which, while short and simplistic, was in interesting thought experiment regarding mankind’s hopes for the future. Wells, a student of Marx, expressed a belief through metaphor that there could never be true equality, and there would always be those above, and those who served them. None the less, he told an ironic tale of how those on top would eventually get theirs.

Wells’ novel was made into a movie by George Pal. The film was released in02 poster 1960. A second version, starring Guy Pierce and Directed by Simon Wells, H.G.’s grandson, was released in 2002. I have yet to meet someone, besides me, who has read/seen all three versions, which is really too bad. People often ask me which version is the best. The truth is, it’s really hard to pick one, because they are all so different, and each one is strangely apropriate to their time. You might say, reading the book and then watching the movies is a trip through time in itself. I’ll explain.

book coverIn the book, the “Time Traveller,” who is never named, believes that if he travels far enough into the future, he will find mankind in a perfect state. No further explanation of this belief is ever given. Wishing to see mankind’s triumph, his first time-trip is a non-stop journey to the year A.D. 802,701. (Does this seem strange to anyone else? I mean, there’s a reason the Wright Bothers didn’t take their first flight over the Grand Canyon, and early sailors didn’t try to cross the Atlantic.) Once he stops, the Time Traveller first meets the Eloi, a society of childlike people. They live in small communities in futuristic yet deteriorating buildings, doing no work and eating a frugivorous diet. His efforts to communicate are hampered by their lack of curiosity or discipline, and he concludes that they are the result of humanity conquering nature with technology, and adapting to an environment in which strength and intellect are no longer advantageous.

Returning to the site where he arrived, the Time Traveller finds his time

Artist's conception

Artist's conception

machine has been dragged into a nearby Sphynx with heavy doors, locked from the inside. Later, he is approached menacingly by the Morlocks, pale, apelike people who live underground, where he discovers the machinery and industry that make the above-ground paradise possible. He alters his theory, speculating that the human race has evolved into two species: the leisured classes have become the ineffectual Eloi, and the downtrodden working classes have become the brutish, light-fearing Morlocks. Deducing that the Morlocks have taken his time machine, he explores the Morlock tunnels, learning that they feed on the Eloi. His revised analysis is that their relationship is not one of lords and servants but of livestock and ranchers, and with no real challenges facing either species, they have both lost the intelligence and character of Man.

Rod Taylor as H. George Wells

Rod Taylor as H. George Wells

In the 1960 film, the motives of the Traveller (now bearing the name George, and a license plate on his Machine that reads “H. George Wells”) are a bit more clear, if not much more sensible. In 1899, George (Rod Taylor), a brilliant physisist, has been offered a contract by the government of England to design weapons. Being a pacifist, he finds this horrifying and longs to discover man in a perfect, peaceful state. Believing that somewhere in the future he will find such a civilization, he sets off through time. He watches the world change rapidly around him until he sees his windows boarded up in the year 1914. Curious, he stops the Machine and gets out. He strolles across the street and meets the son of his friend from the beginning, David Philby

The Morlocks of 1960

The Morlocks of 1960

(both played by Alan Young). He learns that Philby has been killed in the First World War. Obviously, he decides to keep going. Back in the Time Machine, he makes a brief stop in 1940, where he sees London being bombed by the Nazis. He then continues to 1966 (six years in the future at that time) where he sees everyone walking around in radiation suits. He once again meets Philby’s son, who remarks that he saw George on the same spot in the same clothes 52 years before. Sirens begin blaring and every one runs, shouting “get to the shelter!” Philby points to the sky and says to George, “There, an atomic satelite zeroing in!” He tries to drag George to the shelter, but George refuses to leave his Machine, so Philby abandons him and runs for safety. Seconds later, a blast rips through London, resulting in some impressive (for 1960) miniature work. George, narrating, lamants “The labor of centuries gone in an instant!” A lava flow heads for the Time Machine, and George has to rush to activate it before the flood hits. He suddenly finds himself traveling through time inside a wall of rock. He is forced to keep traveling through time at breakneck speed, lest he be crushed. Unable to move his machine in space, he has no choice but to wait for time to wear down the mountain he is inside of.

George meets Weena.

George meets Weena.

When it finally does, he sees futuristic buildings springing up around him, and notes there doesn’t seem to be weather. He asks “had man finally learned to control the elements … and himself?” He stops at the year A.D. 802,701 once again, and meets the Eloi, who in this version are still human, although their frail bodies and pale skin are reminiscent of the creatures from the book. The Eloi still speak broken English (no explanation for this), and have little interest in technology or the past. George is so disapointed by the “perfect” world he has discovered that he berates he Eloi “What have you done?? Thousands of

The Sphynx.

The Sphynx.

generations of men struggeling and sacraficing, and for what? So you can swim and dance and play! I’m going back to my own time. I won’t tell them about the useless struggle, but at least I can die among men!” Upon attempting this however, he finds that his Machine has again been dragged into the Sphynx and he is trapped.

Lambs to the slaughter.

Lambs to the slaughter.

In this version, the Morlocks provide the Eloi with food and clothing, as in the book. However, instead of snatching them one at a time, they use (of all things) air-raid sirens to lure them underground in droves (left). In one scene, the siren cuts off, and the door to the Morlocks’ slaughter house slams shut, denying entrance to the Eloi still outside. George shakes one who seems to be in a trance (below), and the Eloi tells him “it is all clear,” meaning the air raid has ended, essentially.  Apparently, the Morlocks are able to do this because humans are so conditioned from fleeing underground at the sound of sirens ever since 1960. shake

Eventually, a girl named Weena (Yvette Mimieux) leads George to a room full of “talking rings” which seem to be surviving records of Earth’s past. The rings hold the voices of people describing nuclear and other wise horrible wars; the last recording annouces that Earth’s atmosphere has been all but destroyed and most of the human race is fleeing underground to escape the Sun’s harmful rays. A few have decided to “take our chances in the sunlight, however small they might be.” George deduces that those who fled underground were the ancestors of the Morlocks and those who remained were the ancestors of the Eloi.

And so, in both the book and the 1960 film, the division of humanity is caused by a social evil that preocupies the author, resulting in one side becoming a race of monsters that preys upon the other. In 1894, when Marxism was popular among the wealthy elite of Europe (did you note the irony there?), the division was caused by the oppression of the lower classes. This resulted in a kind of ironic justice, when the upper classes became food for the lower classes. In 1960, when everyone feared the Bomb, the division was caused by the continuing folly of war, which finally drove one side underground. The element of ironic justice is

George fights the Morlocks in their labyrinth.

George fights the Morlocks in their labyrinth.

conspicuously lacking here, which may be why the script calls for George and the Eloi to triumph over the Morlocks. While the Traveler simply returned to his own time in despair of Man’s future, George follows his beloved Weena into the Morlocks’ slaughterhouse. Once there, he is able to inspire the Eloi to join him in fighting against the Morlocks. Once they escape, at George’s direction, they throw large amounts of dry wood down the wells that connect the surface to the underground to stoke an underground inferno. The Morlocks’ lair caves in. Shortly after, George returns to his own time and tells the tale of his adventure to several collegues who leave, scoffing at him. Except Philby. A few minutes later, Philby and George’s housekeeper (Doris Lloyd) discover that George has once again disapeared in his Time Machine, and that he has taken three books from his library with him. Having searched for his purpose for years, George has apparently found it in rebuilding civilization in A.D. 802,701. And, of course, being with Weena.

Joey Film GeekIn the 2002 version, which also starts in 1899, the time traveller is Alexander Hartdegen, a physics professor who wants his students to abandon the expectations of society and conquer nature with technology. His fiance, Emma (Sienna Gullory), feels like he’s more attracted to model T cars than to her. Philby (Mark Addy) asks Alexander if he thinks Man could ever go too far whith technology. Alex scoffs “No such thing.” That night Emma is killed by a mugger in the park. He decides to use his skill with technology to change the past and bring her back. He works for four years on a time machine. When it’s complete, he

"In a week, we'll have never have had this conversation."

"In a week, we'll have never have had this conversation."

dresses in his best and gets into a chair with parasol-like apparati above and below it that spin, generating a sphere around the machine in which time does not pass. The scene changes before we see his journey. He goes back to the night Emma died, meets her, and steers her away from the park. He extracts a promise from her to go home and stay there until morning. Just when he thinks he has triumphed, a model T goes hay wire and runs her over.

The Time Machine of 2002. Also makes a great cup of jo.

The Time Machine of 2002, often mistaken for a coffee maker.

In the next scene, Alex mutters to himself “Why can’t I change the past? I could come back a thousand times; see her die a thousand ways. I can’t find the answers here … not here … not now…” Only then do we see his now archetypal journey forward as the sun becomes a blurred line overhead and trees spring up like gysers around him. We see a pull-back shot in which a biplane, then a twin prop, then a modern jet and finally a satelite fly over Alex, before we see a shuttle landing on the moon. Alex’s attention is caught by an advertisement declaring “the future is now!” and he stops in 2030 (28 years in the future at that time). A pedestrian looks at his time machine and remarks “bet that makes a hell of a capuchino.”

The advertisement is for realestate on the moon, where a colony is being built. Alex walks into the Fifth Avenue Public Library, drawn by all the new techonology, where he meets Photonic (Orlando Jones), a sarcastic computer program who walks inside panes of glass and offers to retrieve data from the library’s system (below). When Alex asks to learn about time travel, Photonic

"Live long, and prosper."

"Live long, and prosper."

rolls its eyes. Disapointed, Alex gets back into the time machine and travels forward another 7 years. When he sees chaos around him, he stops. Military vehicels race through the streets, and the ground shakes violently. Upon dismounting, Alex is accoasted by several soldiers who urge him to come with them underground. He demands to know what’s going on, assuring them “Yes, I’ve been living under a rock!” They tell him that the demolitions for the lunar colony over the past 7 years have changed the moon’s orbit, and caused the moon to start breaking up. Alex looks skyward and sees the moon, much larger than ususal, and riddled with cracks. At that moment a crack opens in the earth. Alex races to his Machine before the crack destroys it, and mangaes to throw it into gear just in time. However, his Machine is rocked by the disaster, and he hits his head, and is knocked uncouncious.

Samantha Mumba as Mara.

Samantha Mumba as Mara.

Out of control, the Machine hurtles through time. We see glacers come and go and the ground rise above the timeless sphere and then fall back below it. Rivers carve canyons in the blink of an eye. Alex eventually regains conciousness just long enough to stop the Machine at (you guessed it) A.D. 802,701, before slipping back into oblivion. He awakens in a bed somewhere with a bandage on his head. He walks out into a community of huts built on the side of a cliff. He is confronted by people he is unable to communicate with, until a woman named Mara (Samantha Mumba) asks “Do you know my words?” in perfect English. It turns out that the Eloi in this version have discovered “the Stone Language” carved in stone and concrete relics from our time, and have kept it alive as a tradition. Most Eloi lose the ability to speak it by adulthood, but Mara teaches children, so she has retained it.

Quite different from the Eloi in 1894 and in 1960, the Eloi of 2002 are highly industrious, growing crops, and building windmills. There is no evidence of anything being done for them by anyone else. However, they live under the opression of a fear that they refuse to speak of. Alex suspects it has to do with the reason none of the Eloi seem to be older than their early twenties. He awakens one night from a nightmare in which he is being drawn toward a frightening statue in the forest. Mara tells him “we all have that dream,” but refuses to say more. We later learn that that same night, Alex’s pocket watch was stolen by Morlocks, which explains why the Eloi have no machines. Alex gazes up at the remains of our moon, now a collection of chunks that make a spectacular stream across the sky, and thinks “You were right, David. We did go too far.”

He learns what the Eloi’s unspoken fear is when the Morlocks first attack. The Morlocks of 2002 are considerably more formidable than in the other versions, traveling fast on all fours, and then fighting on two legs. They bear more resemblance to the Uruk Hai from The Lord of the Rings, stalking between rows of their machines. After Mara, along with others, is dragged underground in an

Guy Pierce gets mideval in the 8000th century.

Guy Pierce gets mideval in the 8000th century.

attack,  Alex demands to know why the Eloi will not fight back. An Eloi replies “those who … ‘fight’ are taken first.” So between 1894 and 2002, the relationship has made a full transition from ironic justice to shameless opression. The Eloi lack technology not because of laziness, but because the Morlocks use coordinated attacks to keep them helpless. The end result, however, is essentially the same, as Alex finds out. He discovers Photonic again, its panes of glass tarnished and cracked, but still functional (after 800,000 years. Right). Photonic directs him to the statue he dreamed of, this version’s Sphynx. He climbs down into it and discovers a grizly slaughterhouse scene that audiences were spared in 1960. After being captured, he sees Mara locked in a cage and meets the “Uber Morlock,” brilliantly played by Jeremy Irons, though he is well hidden in a great makeup job.

Spy Morlocks mark targets for Hunters.

Spy Morlocks mark targets for Hunters.

The Uber Morlock extends peculiar hospitality to Alex, protecting him from the bestial Morlocks, answering his questions and even returning his Time Machine and pocket watch. He explains:

“After the Moon fell from the sky, the Earth could no longer sustain the species. Some managed to stay above, while others escaped below, and centuries later when we tried to emerge into the sunlight, we found we could not. So we bred ourselves into casts.”

The hunter Morlocks are bred to be predators but also to be controlled. The Uber Morlock is of a cast that concentrated on expanding its cerebral abilities. He says that without control the hunters would exhaust the food supply in a matter of months. He also controlls the Eloi and keeps them fearful.

The Uber Morlock calls Alex by name and knows who he is and why he has traveled through time. He also projects pictures into Alex’s head, putting him back in his laboratory with Emma. Alex learns learns that some Eloi, like Mara, are not consumed, but instead are used as“breeding vessels” for Morlock colonies (yuck).

Alexander is reunited with Mara.

Alexander is reunited with Mara.

Finally, the UM explains to Alex “You built your time Machine because of Emma’s death. If she had lived it would never have existed, so how could you use it to save her? You are the inescapable result of your choices, just as I am the inescabable result of you (?).” He then shows Alex the Time Machine. “You have your answer. Now go.” At this point, Alex has to be thinking “I came 8,000 centuries for a lame explanation like that?” This is the first version that tries to adress paradox in time travel, but it completely ignores exerything besides Emma’s death that Alex changed by going back.

Tell me this isn't scary.

Tell me this isn't scary.

Long story short, Alex kills the UM. After outsmarting a creature that has demonstrated the ability to read and controll his thoughts, Alex uses his pocketwatch to jam his Machine. Mara asks “What are you doing with it?” He replies “Changing the future.” The jamming results in a sort of explosion of time, that rusts metal and rots Morlocks in the blink of an eye, and destroys their lair. This, while undeniably ham-fisted, is also undeniably cool. He saves Mara and they live happily ever after.

Rather than inequality or war, this version is concerned with rappidly

The Time Machine of 1960, now in a museum.

The Time Machine of 1960, now in a museum.

expanding technology. Once again, the social evil warned of in 1899 creates havoc in the near future that forces part of humanity undergroud to evolve into monsters, who return to feed on those above. The time traveler once again abandons what he set out to find, and finds happiness in the time he has traveled to.

All three versions suffer a certain weakness. The problem with basing a story that covers 800,000 years on a single societal concern should be obvious. 800,000 years eclipses all of recorded history aproximately 100 times. And yet, even the near future is hard to portray acurately. George Pal’s portrayal 1966 looks quite droll only 50 years later. Simon Wells’ portrayal of 2030 will no doubt look the same in 2050. It’s rediculous for a writer to asume that what’s on his mind at the moment will be shaping the world so far down the road. Good science fiction will, of course, include some social critisism, but there’s a reason most science fiction stories don’t take place so far into the future. The book comes the closest to acknowledging this, as it doesn’t try to tell a story that weaves all the centuries together. Wells’ hero simply leaves Wells’ time, goes to a time when the world was unrecognizable, comes back, and tells the tale. However, this also makes the book the least engaging and most depressing version.

George comes home, looking how I felt at 1 am after finishing this review.

George comes home, looking how I felt at 1 am after finishing this review.

For dramatic purposes, Pal’s version is a clear improvement over the book, because it takes the same basic plot and makes it into a story of rebirth, rather than degeneration, and of good triumphing over evil. It’s rather hard to buy the hippie philosophy 50 years later, however. The 2002 version seems to be the least preachy of the three, and while it does at times sacrafice thought for Hollywood sensationalism, it has some good messages about facing your fears and finding what’s truly important in life. Each version is a noteworthy embodiment of the values of its time. In sum, I would have to say I liked the version from my century the best. But of course, I would.

The book

1960 version

2002 version

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